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Six Degrees: Big Questions

SOCCER: NOV 22 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Round One - FC Dallas at Portland Timbers Photo by Brian Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

1) Okay, folks. After a long offseason of dickin’ around, shit’s about to get real. This time next week, the Timbers will be playing a real, live game. Not a preseason, exhibition, just-for-fun, this-doesn’t-count game, either. These games’ll matter.

We’ll start with a home/away CONCACAF Champions League series against Honduran side CD Marathon. Then, just a week after those two games, we’ll be playing our first MLS game.

But things aren’t getting serious just for the Timbers. They’re getting serious for my dumb ass, too. After months of writing fun little filler columns, it’s time for me to write about stuff that actually matters. No more food carts and posters and Salem Strongbads. It’s time to write about actual soccer.

So, let’s start with some questions. One big question for every part of the team. But be warned: I have zero answers, just questions.

2) One big question for the defense: can they quit giving up late goals?

In 2020, we gave up 14 goals in the last 15 minutes of regular season games. Then in our only playoff game, we stayed true to form, taking a 1-0 lead into second half stoppage, only to give up a tying goal. It would have been comical, if it hadn’t been so tragic.

Will the defense stop doing that in 2021? We’ll have the same faces in the middle – Steve Clark, Larrys Mabiala, and Dario Zuparic – but out on the flanks, we’ll have two new fullbacks – 24-year-old Argentine Claudio Bravo on the left and 27-year-old Liga MX veteran Josecarlos Van Rankin on the right.

I’m sure those two newbies have heard all about last year’s late-game difficulties. In fact, I’ll bet the whole team’s heard so much about improving their late-game defense, that they’re sick of it. But it’s the clear and obvious question for the defense. Can they quit giving up late goals? If they can, it might be a hell of a fun year.

3) One big question for the midfield: can Eryk Williamson build on last year’s breakthrough?

If you’d asked me this question in January, I’d have been like, hell yeah he can, he’s motherfuckin’ Eryk Williamson!

But a couple months later, I’m actually a little concerned. My concern started when Eryk didn’t get picked for the U23 Olympic qualifying team. My concern only increased when I saw Cristhian Paredes starting every single preseason game down in Tuscon.

If it were just the U23 thing, I’d assume the problem was US coach Jason Kreis being an idiot. But Gio Savarese’s not an idiot. Does he also think Eryk’s performance is lacking? Has Eryk taken a step back this offseason?

Alternate theory: maybe Cristhian Paredes has taken a step forward. 2020 was a gigantic disappointment for him. Maybe he showed up this year with his ass on fire and simply outplayed Eryk.

I have no idea where the truth lies, but am eager to find out.

4) One big question for the forwards: can our three strikers score at the same rate they did last year?

Last year, Jeremy Ebobisse had eight goals in 1062 minutes, for a G/90 rate of 0.68. Felipe Mora had seven goals in 1204 minutes, for a G/90 rate of 0.52. And Jaroslaw Niezgoda had seven goals in 602 minutes, for a truly ridiculous G/90 rate of 1.05. For comparison, the MLS players who finished 1-5 in goals scored last year had G/90 rates of 0.74, 0.63, 0.76, 0.56, and 0.52, respectively.

Can our three strikers deliver at that level again in 2021? And can they keep it up for a full season? Remember, Mora and Niezgoda have yet to play a full, 34-game MLS season. They haven’t traveled the absurd distances MLS players do for months on end. They haven’t spent all those hours in a cramped airplane seat. Will it affect them this year? Niezgoda, probably not, since he won’t be back from his ACL tear until mid-season. But Mora? Yeah, there’s a real chance he starts strong, then falls off a cliff when all the travel catches up to him.

I like our three-headed goal-scoring monster, but I won’t be surprised if their success rate falls off a little this year. If it happens, let’s hope the rest of our attackers can pick up the slack.

5) One big question for our coaching staff: will Gio continue with the beautiful, exciting, and successful attack we saw in 2020?

When Gio arrived in 2018, he promised attractive soccer, then followed it up with two years of sitting deep and countering. Then, last year, much to everyone’s surprise, the Timbers came out and played the beautiful game. Gone were the long, hopeful crosses from way out on the sideline. Instead, we saw quick passing, lovely combinations, multiple players in the box, and a whole slew of goals.

Will we see that again in 2021? Is that going to be our thing now? Or was last year a mirage and Gio’s going to fall back on the safe, pragmatic, mostly successful, but definitely boring sit-deep-and-counter strategy of 2018 and 2019? I think it’s pretty obvious which one I’m hoping for.

6) One big question for our front office: how’s the whole COVID thing gonna work this year?

One of the team’s biggest successes last year was the fact that we never had a COVID outbreak. I give everyone involved an A+ on that front. But here we are in 2021 and the whole pandemic thing, while improving, is not entirely gone.

How’s the team going to handle it? I know they’ll once again travel on chartered flights, so that’s good. Will they stay in hotels this year? They mostly didn’t last year, which led to some very late return flights. I can’t see us doing that again, though. We’re gonna fly home at midnight from Houston, Texas? No way. But I do imagine that road trips will be like mini-bubbles, with players and staff holed up in their hotel rooms.

But there’s one additional factor this year. Fans. That’s right, this year, Providence Park’s gonna have actual butts in actual seats. Will that work out well? Will all the safety protocols work? Will the team handle us fans as well as they’ve handled the team? Cross every finger you’ve got that they do, because if COVID cases rise, I’d bet good money that we’ll go back to empty stadiums.

So, what do you think of my big questions? Got other questions you think are bigger? Let me know down in comments.